Magazine article History Today

Friends of Foes? the Islamic East and the West: Christopher J. Walker Asks Whether the Two Religions That Frequently Appear Locked in an Inevitable Clash of Civilizations in Fact Share More Than Has Often Been Thought

Magazine article History Today

Friends of Foes? the Islamic East and the West: Christopher J. Walker Asks Whether the Two Religions That Frequently Appear Locked in an Inevitable Clash of Civilizations in Fact Share More Than Has Often Been Thought

Article excerpt

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CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM are often perceived to be elemental foes. Their antagonism is frequently assumed to be one of the iron facts of history; and perhaps those who see them as condemned to permanent hostility are right. Yet if we look at the record of history over the last 1,400 years, we find a more nuanced picture.

For long periods relations were quiescent, and tensions handled through diplomatic channels, not military adventurism. The two civilizations clashed only seldom, and sometimes there was a collaborative content to east-west, or Islamic-Christian, relations. Thus the 'most Christian king' of France was allied to the Ottoman empire in the mid-sixteenth century, and the England of Elizabeth I also established a semi-alliance with the eastern power. Queen Victoria too grew dedicated to supporting the Ottomans from the 1870s. On each occasion the alliance with the Muslim power was favoured above Christian ones: the French being in conflict with Austria, and the English with, first, Spain and later Russia--all devoutly Christian powers.

The complex dealings between the two faiths can be broken down into overlapping but distinguishable areas of belief, culture and political/military relations. It is sometimes claimed that state and religion are and always have been identical in Islam, but the historical facts do not support this interpretation.

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The Koran is reverential towards Jesus. But, like the Bible, in matters of faith and public behaviour it contains passages both of pacific toleration and armed confrontation. Therefore little guidance on cooperation or conflict can be found in sacred books. Interpretation, and the record of history, are more important.

Christianity became militarized following its acceptance by Constantine as the imperial faith in the fourth century AD. Thus the Emperor Theodosius campaigned against views seen as heretical, while Heraclius, who in the early seventh century, shortly before the emergence of Islam, fought a bitter five-year struggle with the Sasanid Persians, was driven in part by devout considerations. Islam emerged in an environment which was partly pagan, partly Jewish and partly Christian. Within Arabian paganism there had been a strong impulse to believe in one superior god. When, following the death of Muhammad in AD 639, the new faith spread beyond Arabia, its leaders fought impartially against the militarily exhausted empire of Zoroastrian Sasanid Persia (which it crushed) and Christian Byzantium (into which it made significant inroads).

Culturally the early Muslims absorbed the eastern Roman culture of late antiquity; the seventh-eighth-century Umayyad ruins at Anjar, Lebanon, resemble late Roman ruins of the eastern Mediterranean. The Great Mosque in Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem were decorated by mosaicists loaned from the Byzantine court. Conversely, within a few decades Byzantine structures were being influenced by Arab architectural models and taste.

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Belief was central to the Late Antique world. Heresy was taken seriously by the Byzantine empire. Doctrines on the nature of the Trinity had been established in the fourth century AD, and on the human and divine aspects of Christ in the fifth. Yet the accepted formulae were unacceptable to many eastern Christians, and Islam, monotheistic but indifferent to details of Christian dogma, was welcomed by some in the eastern regions, since it did not seek to crush beliefs in the way the Byzantine church did. Other Christians, too, saw the Islamic stress on the unity of God a welcome reassertion of something that had been lost in the Nicene formula of the Trinity.

The Armenian Bishop Sebeos initially welcomed the new faith as a divinely sent belief-system; it was only after the unsuccessful Muslim siege of Constantinople in the 670s that he saw it otherwise. …

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